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  • Operators look to natural meat and meat alternatives to stand out from competitors.

    As Americans’ hunger for burgers and chicken continues to grow, restaurant operators are tweaking their menus to meet consumers’ demands for new meats and higher quality.

    An increasing number of limited-service restaurants have added better and more “natural” meat to their repertoires. At the same time, they are featuring other proteins.

    From the growth of Angus menu items to the specialty burger craze, there has been no slowdown in sales of beef on a bun, according to a Technomic study last summer.

    The Chicago-based market-research and consulting firm found that nearly half of consumers eat a burger at least once a week, up from 38 percent two years earlier.

    While a good chunk of the boost was attributed to quick-serve value menus, there are other factors at work, says Sara Monnette, director of Technomic’s consumer research.

    Diners “want to get something they really enjoy and that satisfies a craving,” she says. “For many people, that’s a burger and fries. Burgers offer great value paired with variety that matches what any one consumer can afford or is willing to spend.”

    As fast-casual restaurants flourished by offering burgers with premium beef and other meats, quick serves responded “by offering both an affordable burger on the value menu and a more premium burger” that is bigger, uses more premium beef, and has a higher price, she says.

    Of the many limited-service restaurants tracked by Technomic’s MenuMonitor, nearly two dozen use Angus beef in burgers or other menu items.

    The company’s research also found that nearly 23 percent of consumers ages 18–34 find it important to have vegetarian burgers on the menu. There were also big gains in health-halo attributes such as using natural, hormone-free, and antibiotic-free meat.

    Still, only 8 percent of consumers specifically crave healthy foods when they go out to eat, says Bonnie Riggs, restaurant-industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group.

    The most important factor for these consumers is fresh ingredients.

    But there’s another important element: price.

    NPD found that consumers expect to pay more to get food that is better for them, and “the older we get, the more dissatisfied we are in that,” Riggs says.

    Another concern that operators have to overcome is the issue of taste. Many people believe that “good for you” food is intrinsically less flavorful.

    Part of the problem dates to the 1980s, when restaurants tried to meet the low-fat craze. But many menu items simply didn’t taste good, and the food landscape soon was littered with failed concepts like D’Lites and KFC’s Fresher Cooker.

    “If you are going to have these types of items on the menu, you have to be careful about positioning and price,” Riggs says. “And the food must taste good.”

    One of the first concepts to succeed in that was Chipotle Mexican Grill, the Denver-based fast-casual pioneer founded by Steve Ells in 1993. It now has some 1,100 units in 39 states, Canada, and England.

    Known for its giant-sized burritos, Chipotle was a small chain in 1999 of about 50 units, when Ells, a Culinary Institute of America grad, began to rework his recipe for carnitas—braised pork—because they were not selling well.

    After reading about problems with concentrated animal feeding operations compared to more humane and natural ways to raise pigs, such as at Niman Ranch’s Iowa farms, Ells decided to visit both types of farming operations.

    He was “horrified” at what he saw at the factory farm, company spokesman Chris Arnold says, and was alternately impressed with the old-fashioned, less cramped, and antibiotic-free way Niman was operating. He determined natural meat also tasted better.

    “He had an epiphany,” Arnold says. “To serve the best food, you have to find more sustainable, natural sources. How the animal is raised shows up in the taste of the food.”

    Chipotle now vows to use naturally raised meat, organic produce, and hormone-free dairy. The company serves 100 million pounds of natural meat a year, including all of its pork, 85 percent of its beef, and 75 percent of its chicken.

    Raising livestock naturally costs more, and when Chipotle made the switch, prices went up. Most entrées are now $6.25–$6.65, but “people are willing to spend more money to get food that is obviously better,” Arnold says.

    U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines say natural meat is from livestock raised without growth additives and most antibiotics, and is not fed animal byproducts. Chipotle takes that a step further by requiring natural living conditions.

    Natural is not organic, however.

    “Organic is a federally regulated claim, with enforcement under the USDA,” says Gwendolyn Wyard, associate director for Organic Standards and Industry Outreach at the Vermont-based Organic Trade Association. “Standards are very strict.”

    The biggest difference in the terms organic and natural is that organic livestock must have access to organic pastures free of pesticides and herbicides for at least three years. Animals also must get certified all-organic feed.

    Ells’ success with Chipotle’s natural meats has encouraged others to follow.

    Early last year, Moe’s Southwest Grill switched its 420 restaurants to natural ingredients. The steak is from grass-fed and hormone-free imported beef, chicken is natural and cage-free, and the pork is hormone- and steroid-free.